Christmas is coming early this year for gun nuts, thanks to a provision of the Defense Authorization Bill that Obama just signed into law. And the NRA is cheering because this small part of the military funding bill releases a huge stash of 1911 45-caliber pistols that have been gathering rust in military arsenals since the Army switched its battle pistol to the Beretta M9, 9mm model back in 1985.
John Browning’s small-arms masterpiece was actually designed and then initially manufactured in 1907. But the gun wasn’t adopted by the U.S. Military until 1911, hence the nomenclature under which the pistol probably became the second most popular handgun of all time (the first being Browning’s other great design, the Hi-Power, aka P-35.) In addition to the United States, the 1911 was adopted by military units in at least 28 other countries, carried by police worldwide, and copied by manufacturers in South America, Eastern Europe and the Far East. I have probably owned 20 of these pistols since I bought my first one in 1976; I have three of them currently, including an absolutely mint civilian model manufactured at the Hartford Colt factory on Huyshope Avenue in 1920.
Despite its long-standing popularity, the Colt 1911 and, for that matter the 45 caliber ammunition eventually fell into disfavor in the 1970s when European pistol makers, in particular Beretta, Glock and Sig, began manufacturing high-capacity, double-action, polymer framed pistols in 9mm caliber that were capable of holding and shooting (without reloading) 15 or 16 rounds. Since the 1911 only held 8 rounds and was a single-action gun, it was seen as too outmoded and too traditional in design for the modern day. Ironically, the first lightweight-framed, double-action 9mm pistol on the market was manufactured by Smith & Wesson, which was sold in the United States prior to the appearance of any of the off-shore guns. The only problem with this gun, known as the Model 59 (there was also a beautiful, single-stack version known as the Model 39) was that it didn’t work. Well, it kind of worked, but often it didn’t work, and if you took the gun apart to clean it there was a good chance it would have to be shipped back to the factory service department in order to get it reassembled again.
When the U.S. Army commenced field tests to replace the 1911, the Model 59 didn’t get through the first round. Then the Army, in response to pressure from (believe it or not) Senator Ted Kennedy, conducted a second series of field tests in order to choose a new pistol, the Model 59 immediately flunked the tests again. Which meant that, sooner or later, in addition to the military, cops throughout the U.S. would be carrying European-style, hi-capacity pistols, which would then result in the same types of weapons ending up in the street.
What actually brought about the revival of interest in the 1911 pistol was another government move, namely, the Clinton assault-weapons “ban” of 1994. By placing a limit of 10 rounds on all gun magazines shipped with new guns, the superior firepower of high-capacity, double-action pistols disappeared. What was the difference between 10 rounds of 9mm ammunition versus 8 rounds of the larger, 45-caliber shell? Not very much, which explains why the venerable 1911 is still valued today. Which also explains why the NRA is making such a big deal out of releasing the 1911 service pistols to the Civilian Marksmanship Program, hence to licensed dealers, hence to gun nuts like me.
There’s only one little problem. Right now if I want to sell one of my 1911 service pistol with the original markings on the slide and frame, the gun will fetch me somewhere just south of two thousand bucks. Know what’s going to happen to that price when hundreds of thousands of surplus army pistols hit the street? The value of my 1911 stash just disappeared. Thanks for nothing, NRA. Thanks for nothing President Obama. And Merry Christmas to both of you too.